After establishing himself as a gifted director of ads and music videos—with credits including Johnny Cash's "God Gonna Cut You Down" and Soul Asylum's "Runaway Train"—Tony Kaye gained a different sort of notoriety when he made his first feature, American History X, in 1998. Battling with the studio (New Line) and his star Edward Norton (whom he claimed was re-editing the film to give himself more screen time), he wound up decrying both in a full-page Variety ad, demanding that his name be taken off the film. (When told that the Director's Guild Of America wouldn't let him use the "Alan Smithee" pseudonym, he suggested "Humpty Dumpty" as a replacement.) He then tried to sue New Line and the Director's Guild for violating his First Amendment rights. In the end, he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, his name remained on the theatrical cut, and he became a Hollywood pariah.
Meanwhile, Kaye was already several years into making the epic abortion documentary Lake Of Fire. Financed with his own money and shot in 35mm black and white, the 152-minute film couldn't be less commercial, but Kaye's labor of love was rapturously received at the Toronto Film Festival a year ago, and it may be the most even-handed and prismatic treatment of the subject on film to date. Kaye recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the struggle to produce Lake Of Fire, the polarizing nature of the abortion issue, and his misgivings over the American History X debacle.
The A.V. Club: Lake Of Fire was self-financed, and it took 16 years to complete. Was there ever a point where it looked like you'd never get it done? Were you ready to throw up your hands and let it go?
Tony Kaye: Well, no. Other than the fact that I got a hypochondriac attack and thought I was going to die. [Laughs.] Although I did go bankrupt while making it. The film was part of my estate, so it was taken away from me, and I had to buy it back. So there was a period where I stopped working on it, but I was working in the blind faith that nobody would want it other than me. It wasn't finished at that point.
AVC: How far along were you when you went bankrupt?
TK: I went bust quite far down the line, somewhere between '98 and 2000. After American History X. As a result of American History X.
AVC: Thirty-five millimeter is very cinematic, but for the sake of your estate, did you ever consider switching to a cheaper format?
TK: No, it was always my plan to make an epic documentary film. [The finished film] projects well. It's a high-definition projection, it's not a print yet, but it was my plan to have a cinematic quality to the piece, so there was never any doubt in doing it any way other than 35mm.
AVC: Were there any developments that you missed during the period when you didn't have money to continue shooting? Were there changes in abortion law, for example, that might have caused problems for the film?
TK: Oh, yeah. There are so many things I would like in the film. I continually watch the film even now. If there's a screening, I'll watch it. And I don't watch it out of vanity. For me, it's just an opportunity to watch it with an audience and learn more and more about what's there. I'm constantly thinking about how I'm going to change it. [Laughs.]
AVC: It seemed like a very complete film when it premièred in Toronto, but people said at the time that it was unfinished, and you were making changes.
TK: I haven't done that. Those changes would have cost me millions of dollars to make: adding various visual effects, interviewing scores of other people. I need to do a television piece about it at some point, or even on the DVD, to expand it more. As you say, a lot of the things that have taken place are not in the film, and I'd like to touch on them.
AVC: In the film, you talk to Noam Chomsky, Alan Dershowitz, and other intellectual academics who support abortion rights, but other than Nat Hentoff, whose philosophy isn't shared by that many pro-lifers, the pro-life position is largely represented by religious extremists. How do you account for this? Is there an intellectual defense for anti-abortionists, or is it more a spiritual and emotional issue for them?
TK: Well, it's very emotional. [Pepperdine law professor] Douglas Kmiec actually puts forward the pro-life reasoning in a calmer, more removed way. But theirs is a much more impassioned position. It's about the seen and the unseen. Pro-choice is an argument based on ideas and ideals that are completely sound, without a shadow of a doubt. But it's arguing based on an idea. Pro-life is based upon something you can actually see. In my film, there are three abortions that take place in 152 minutes. There is a late-term abortion. There is an abortion shown taking place in a propagandist pro-life film. And there's a more regular abortion that happens at the end. These are the only things that actually happen in the whole film. You learn about all these other things, but you don't see anything else happen. You're told about things, even the murders [of abortion doctors]. You see the murderer and you see them arrested and you see the murder victim. You don't see any of it take place. Yes, I think where pro-life comes from, they get much more impassioned. They're much fewer and far between, people like Douglas Kmiec and Nat, you know?
AVC: Do you see a future in which Roe vs. Wade is overturned, or might it be a "death by a thousand papercuts" situation, where abortion rights gradually erode? Or could the pendulum swing the other way?
TK: I wish Noam Chomsky was here conversing with you, and I'm sure you wish he was conversing with you as well. [Laughs.] It's not really my place to comment on that question. All I can say is that I think there's clear evidence that there are much fewer abortion clinics than there ever were, there are much fewer doctors, there are fewer medical students going down that avenue of work, and the government is largely pro-life. Will Roe vs. Wade be overturned? I don't know. I can't tell you that. It's not for me to say. All I can say is that anything can happen. That wasn't the point of the film, really.
AVC: One of the film's more disturbing assertions is that the violence and intimidation tactics against doctors and facilities involved in abortions have been effective in curbing them. Do you believe that to be the case?
TK: I'm not sure. It's a very good question, but I honestly don't know. It's difficult to say, isn't it? Public opinion can shift for a number of reasons. What I was trying to get at in making the film was just simply to understand what abortion was, because I didn't know. My intuition was that [the issue] was tremendously important—you'd have to be an idiot not to realize that—but what I was trying to do as a filmmaker, in a personal way, was to find out exactly what abortion was without taking any sides and without being judgmental. And because the sort of person that I am I'm sort of an empty vessel, in a way. I don't really know much about anything. I just spend my life studying the manufacture of sound and picture and my education, if you like, has come from what I've chosen to make sounds and pictures on.
AVC: Then you feel your point of view doesn't factor into the film, or you've tried to keep it from factoring into the film?
TK: I really don't have a point of view, and when I started making the film, I wanted to make a film about abortion that tried to cover the whole subject. I tried to write a fictional story, but I couldn't think of the right approach. I tried to look for a script that dealt with it, and I couldn't find anything. I decided to make a documentary. When I started my filmmaking journey 17 years ago, I honestly didn't know what a documentary film was. I had seen work by Michael Moore that I loved at the time, Roger & Me. I'd seen The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris, which I loved. I'd seen some of the Maysles brothers' work, I'd seen [D.A.] Pennebaker's work, I'd seen Frederick Wiseman's work, I'd seen Humphrey Jennings' work, I'd seen Leni Riefenstahl's work, and in a way, Andy Warhol's work. I thought, "Well, I'll make a documentary film." And my concept was that I do think everybody is right, and I want to make a film exploring that more. I thought it was my duty to make the film. I had a calling, of sorts, not to make a propagandist film.
AVC: In the film, you interview some very provocative, dangerous people in the militant corners of the pro-life movement. How did you ingratiate yourself to them? Were people like John Burt [a former KKK member who headed the extremist anti-abortion group Rescue America] or Paul Hill [an activist leader who was given the death penalty for murdering a doctor] suspicious of your motives, or were they anxious to go on record?
TK: I filmed both of them during the Clinton regime, and at that time, pro-lifers were just desperate to have a voice. And that was the purpose of the killing. That was the reason why Paul Hill killed. That was the reason why all of those murderers did what they did: They did it like a terrorist does, to exacerbate that voice, so they were only too happy to be talking to the camera. As a documentary filmmaker, I'm very respectful, and my interview style is not intrusive. I don't really have an agenda. I just go in there, I mumble something or other, I wait for them to speak, and I wait for them to stop. And then when they stop, I write a thought or a question based on what they said, and keep going from there.
AVC: How were you able to convince clinics and patients to allow you to shoot the abortion procedure, or even be in waiting rooms or consultation rooms?
TK: I went through the clinics themselves. I had researchers working for me at the time, and we established a platform of trust in the project and what we were trying to do. And then the clinics put it to the women that were coming in to have the procedure done and said to them, "Would you be interested in sharing this experience? We feel this is important." It took quite some time, but that's how it all fell into place.
AVC: Were you initially given a lot of no's? Did you have to go to a lot of places before you found the right situation?
TK: It took a while, obviously. We're eavesdropping, and it couldn't be a more personal place, could it?
AVC: What about the woman whose story comprises the final act of the film? How did that meeting come about?
TK: That was the same thing. I mean, obviously, with that one, I was looking for something a little more than just an interview, or just the filming of the procedure. This was something where I needed a whole journey. So I decided I needed to tell a story about a woman as she enters the clinic, fills out forms, consults with the staff, and then undergoes the procedure and its aftermath. When I photographed that, I think it was in the sixth year of shooting, and the footage from the recovery room, I knew instinctively would be the end of the film. It didn't matter what else happened.
AVC: Did you get a sense of what her motivation was for sharing the experience with you?
TK: I never questioned that, really. I was just happy that she did. She was a nursing assistant, so I don't think medical procedures were too intimidating for her. I think she was just open to it.
AVC: There's a lot of much-discussed, graphic footage of abortion procedures and fetuses in Lake Of Fire. These sorts of images are often used by pro-lifers for propaganda purposes, but the film uses them for a different purpose. Why was this footage necessary for the film, and how did you recontextualize it?
TK: Well, there are moments of the pro-life propagandist film Hard Truth in Lake Of Fire, and in fact, Hard Truth was the film that was shown to Michael Griffin, the young man who murdered Dr. David Gunn as a result of seeing it. I think largely that Lake Of Fire is an investigation into the hard truth behind the scenes in the debate over the issue. So you have to show it. It's a film about ideas and ideals, and the unseen, which is the place of pro-choice, and what is seen vis-à-vis pro-life. And you weigh the two arguments. I couldn't refuse to show an abortion procedure in its most graphic form, because then I could be accused of not representing the argument of pro-life.
AVC: If you're going to take a pro-choice position, do you feel like those images are important for you to see? To know what it is that you stand for and what an abortion actually is?
TK: I think you have to. My filmmaking style is very graphic. The footage that I shoot of anything is very graphic in nature, meaning very detail-oriented. I've come up through art school, through painting, through graphic design, through advertising, through TV commercials and music video. I've designed books, built billboards, matchbooks, corporate identities. I continuously paint, I've done conceptual art pictures. I just have a very graphic style, so if I'm detailing a procedure like that, I need to detail it from this angle, from that distance, with that lens, in that stock, lit like that, blah blah blah.
AVC: A lot of documentaries are pretty indifferent in the way they're photographed—it's more about the information being shown—but you, as you say, come from a graphical perspective. What was your vision and conceit for the film?
TK: I think a lot of documentaries are made without attention to the way they look. I don't think people choose to make them look bad, even those where it seems that way sometimes. [Laughs.] They don't make a choice; they do the best they can. But that, for me, is just somebody making a film with no film sense. And I approached making Lake Of Fire by giving full attention to every facet of filmmaking as best I can. I believe if you're rendering a craft, you have to master the art of the craft. You have to master the form. So I've done the best I can, in the best way I can, to master the form. One of the reasons I dipped back into the wilderness after American History X is that I felt that the studio filmmaking process was so intimidating, and I didn't have the skill to go into that same methodology of filmmaking again, ever. I've since changed my mind, but what I did do at the time is, I went back into the wilderness and back to my roots to try and learn more about things before I did it again.
AVC: The beginnings of this project actually predate American History X. Did the two films have any influence on each other because of it? Have you always been interested in the extremes of American culture?
TK: Yeah. I mean, I'm a fan of American culture, American pop culture, American history, American films. I'm a fan of the United States of America: the country, what the country stands for That's why I came here in the first place. I came here to be a filmmaker. I didn't stay in England to be a filmmaker. And I did that because other than David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock—and as I said before, I have a fascination with Humphrey Jennings, a British documentary filmmaker—I've never really connected with English films, or even European films, for that matter. I do more now. I have a much wider breadth of tastes. But I didn't back then. I had no connection with it at all.
AVC: Did the two projects ever bleed into each other in your mind? Do you feel like they're about some of the same things?
TK: Yeah, they totally bled into each other. They're about the big issues: crime, racism, abortion. Certainly when I took on American History X, I felt it needed to be executed in a very gritty, very raw way. And actually, at the time, I hadn't seen too many films like that. There's a lot more films like American History X now. Even a film like Crash owes a little bit to what we did in American History X. So all my experience in five or six years of working on Lake Of Fire definitely played a part in the manufacture of American History X. I might have mentioned it before, but spectacle and truth, to me, are two of the most important things when one is carving film. And I tried to make American History X as real as I possibly could.
AVC: You're from Britain. Is there an advantage to having an outsider's perspective on American stories? Have you ever thought about it that way?
TK: I think if you're any kind of tourist, wherever you go, you're always more aware. I've been in America for 17 years now, and I still feel like every day is kind of like a holiday. I'm aware of every moment. You're aware of much more than if you are where you're from, where there's familiarity. I don't feel familiarity with this country at all. And I think that European people do view America with a sense of awe and wonderment rather than maybe an American person who was born here. Though I don't wish to compare myself at all to him, someone like Robert Frank, the photographer who traveled the country and did that marvelous photo essay, The Americans, back in the late '50s He was a European. And again, not to compare myself until maybe one day if I hit a lucky streak, someone like Billy Wilder, or directors like that These are the people that come to America, and there's this wide-eyed wonder about it, sort of like a kid in a candy store. There's so much here to look at. It's just so much more epic here.
AVC: You still feel that way 17 years later?
TK: Every second. If I'd stayed in England, I would have never opened up my vision or my education in the same way. And again, no disrespect to Britain. I mean, London has become a phenomenal place now, an amazing hotbed of all kinds of things, but I personally, desperately needed to come here and experience everything that I have, and will continue to.
AVC: For all of the controversy surrounding its post-production, American History X has found a pretty substantial cult audience. Do you take some measure of gratification from that?
TK: Oh yeah. I'm so happy [New Line Cinema head] Bob Shaye didn't let me take my name off it, you know? [Laughs.] I'm very proud of a lot of American History X, and feel very embarrassed about my egotistical behavior. If I had my way at the time, I'd be [credited as director] Humpty Dumpty now and that's a funny but very painful thing for me to think about.
AVC: You're working on a feature now called Black Water Transit. What can you say about that?
TK: I rewrote an existing script and shot it in New Orleans, and I've got to go to Africa to shoot some more there in a week or so. But I'm editing now in London.
AVC: How did the shoot in New Orleans go?
TK: Great. Finished 10 days early, came in under budget, got everything approved every day before I shot it. Not bad for me. [Laughs.] And I'm very excited about it.
AVC: Was it conceived prior to Hurricane Katrina?
TK: Yes. It was a project that existed before Katrina, and the shooting fell into New Orleans for economic reasons. Then I decided I'd shoot it post-Katrina, and mold the story accordingly. Not that the story has a great deal to do with the hurricane, but the chaos of the characters There's a sort of resonance that plays out against the backdrop of the chaos of the city at that point that wouldn't necessarily, I think, have been as effective had it played out in a more organized place. It's very much a jazz funeral to the city—a modern jazz funeral, which is, in a sense, a rebirth. Which is what a jazz funeral is meant to be.